“Red & Dead:” Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?*

Posted on August 16, 2012


Believe it or not, a group of twenty-somethings with noble intent to preserve and provide objective news existed before “The Newsroom” premiered.

I am proud to associate with a group of these twenty-somethings. And they are some of the most committed young people I know.

During my last semester at the University of Georgia (spring 2012) I acted as opinions editor of The Red & Black, the independent and student-run newspaper of the University. I can emphatically say that it was the most valuable experience I underwent during my four years of college. It taught me lessons in management, ethics and practice I simply could never have learned in a classroom.

I established a professional rapport with my all-students opinions staff and with fellow students who acted as section editors, managing editor and editor-in-chief. We, as students, put into print and published online the product we wanted, ever-improving and ever-evolving with experience.

Less directly, I established a rapport with an editorial adviser — a non-student — with whom my most prominent relationship occurred in the form of weekly, outlined (in email) critiques of my print section after it came out as well as briefer daily critiques of my section’s online content. The critiques were welcomed, helpful, assertive and eye-opening without ever treading into my authoritative territory.

Through all of it — editorial structure and all — I believe I learned the lessons I did because my job was essentially autonomous without lacking oversight. When I messed up, I knew it. It was pointed out to me; I felt the sting of making a public mistake, and I vowed, as a young professional, not to make said mistake again. I didn’t want to see it happen again and to hold responsibility for such a mistake. Best, I had the control of preventing its recurrence.

Yesterday, those aforementioned twenty-somethings followed the lead of Polina Marinova, their editor-in-chief and my former managing editor, when she resigned from her position at The Red & Black. Part of her decision, she said, came from a memo issued by the Red & Black’s Board of Directors :

In a draft outlining the “expectations of editorial director at The Red & Black,” a member of The Red & Black’s Board of Directors stated the newspaper needs a balance of good and bad. Under “Bad,” it says, “Content that catches people or organizations doing bad things. I guess this is ‘journalism.’ If in question, have more GOOD than BAD.” I took great offense to that, but the board member just told me this is simply a draft.

Moreover, under new regulations brought about by the Board  (and decided upon without a student journalist present), many of the responsibilities previously attributed to the paper’s student editors — in fact, many of the core responsibilities I enjoyed and worked freely within during my Red & Black tenure — would henceforth be delegated to “professionals,” i.e. non-students, thereby shirking the essential student responsibilities of the newspaper. Again, from Polina:

…the former editorial adviser, now the editorial director, would see all content before it is published online and in print. For years, students have had final approval of the paper followed by a critique by the adviser only after articles were published. However, from now on, that will not be the case. Recently, editors have felt pressure to assign stories they didn’t agree with, take “grip and grin” photos and compromise the design of the paper.

I encourage everyone to read the full statement and other information presented at the Red & Dead site, whose domain was purchased by the Student Press Law Center, and which now houses the press outlet for Polina and the staffers who followed her. But I would also like to touch on some additional points Red & Dead may not report.

I will note, firstly, that working with Polina was a pleasure. I respect her tremendously, applaud the courage and fervor she has always possessed as a student journalist and stand by her decision. I do not doubt her intentions in the slightest. The same goes for those editors and reporters who followed in Polina’s direction.

The easy thing for these editors and reporters to do, furthermore, would be to succumb to the bureaucratic senselessness thrust upon them by the Board. But these are student reporters educated at one of the finest journalism schools in the nation, and they have been reporters and editors  at one of the finest student publications in the nation. It would be utter idiocy to think they’d acquiesce so easily.

These young people have been taught in class and, lest we forget, largely by their editorial adviser to provide the factual, objective news their community needs — even if facing it head-on proves daunting. They have been entrusted with the ethical responsibility that the maintenance of journalistic credibility entails; they have responded to a (sadly dwindling) beck and call for truth-seeking watchdogs to watch the people and organizations entrusted to support their community’s interests.

These editors and reporters have relished — with bevvies of awards to prove it — in a student-driven environment fueled by trial-and-error. They have been allowed to make mistakes; more importantly, they have been handed the responsibility to correct them. They have been lauded for progress and scolded for misdirection because their voice and their presentation as a renowned student publication mean something. They have earned such a respect, and they and their predecessors have established a tradition of excellence.

To strip these students of their freedoms and responsibilities as reporters and editors at a student publication by instead delegating those responsibilities to professionals is to strip them of the fundamental fabric of student journalism. An outlet asking its student journalists to exercise prior restraint for fear of “bad news” or “stepping on toes” disregards the First Amendment freedoms journalism students are taught to revere. The request itself is a disgrace to the free press.

Ultimately, I don’t yet know why the Board made the decision they did, and I believe someone needs to shed light on WHY and HOW this happened just as much as I believe it must be reported that this DID happen. I do not doubt the decision was made with (what they thought was) the Red & Black student staff’s best interests in mind.

For now, however, I stand by my friends and colleagues at Red & Dead. I wish I were with them. I am deeply proud of their movement. And I hope, if nothing else (though I’m sure more will come), that these events repair the widespread estrangement between UGA’s student journalists and its student readership, which has been historically unkind in its criticism of the newspaper.

I reckon the Board aimed to mend this very reporters-versus-readership crick. The problem, here, is they went about it in all the wrong ways. And their mistakes, along with the rebellious rise of Red & Dead, indeed give all students of media a lesson to learn.

*Yeah, I read the memo. It advises against headlines in other languages. But I work for myself, and I like Latin. Self-publishing, nerds!

Posted in: UGA